Surrounded by well-wishers, Yasser Arafat has left Ramallah en route for a French hospital.
Onlookers tried to catch a glimpse of the ailing Palestinian president as he headed out of his compound for the first time in over two years. The 75-year-old is said to have a low blood platelet count and, amid fears he could be suffering from leukaemia, tests are to be carried out in Paris. Initial reports suggested his illness was a severe case of flu. In his absence, the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie and the legislative council will take over. Yasser Arafat’s condition worsened drastically on Wednesday and yesterday the decision was taken to treat him in the West. Flown by military helicopter to the Jordanian capital, Amman, he warmly greeted supporters. “God willing, I will come back,” he is said to have told aides during a half-hour stopover. The long-time leader has named no successor. He knows that for many Palestinians he is simply irreplaceable. But that has not prevented intense speculation over who would step into his shoes, should he fail to recover. Helped onboard a French plane, the most popular Palestinian politician is widely seen as an icon of his people’s struggle for statehood. Yasser Arafat agreed to go abroad only after his long-time foe, Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon, said he would let him return to Ramallah after his treatment. The veteran leader’s slide into illness has raised fears of chaos among Palestinians. They will be closely following his progress and hoping that he will be heading home soon.